Ten burning questions for 2010-11 (cont.)
Calhoun is one of a handful of coaches who have lorded over the nation's most glamorous conference. Over the last several years he has been joined at the top by another man who is already in the Hall of Fame (Jim Boeheim) and one who has a good chance to get there (Rick Pitino). But with those three in the twilight of their careers, and with Calhoun and Pitino headed for difficult seasons, this season raises the potential that a younger crop of coaches will take the reins for good.
Villanova's Jay Wright (age 48) and Georgetown's John Thompson III (44) have already led their schools to Final Fours this decade, and Buzz Williams (38) will have Marquette in great position for an NCAA bid this season.
But the coach who I believe will finally begin to be recognized as a top-tier talent is Pittsburgh's Jamie Dixon, who is 44. Did you realize that last year Dixon tied the NCAA coaching record for most wins in his first seven years? That his .696 career win percentage is the highest in Big East history? Last year, his Panthers were supposed to take a step back after losing four starters from the team that came within a Scottie Reynolds layup of making the Final Four. All Dixon did was lead them to 25 wins and a trip to the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Now, with four starters back, Pittsburgh will make a strong run at a Big East title and a No. 1 seed. If that happens, I expect more casual fans to recognize that Dixon is among the best in the business.
I'm not talking about the teams that get seeded 13th or 14th in the NCAA tournament and then splash onto the scene with a surprising win or two. I'm talking about the guys who grab our respect from the get-go and win enough games to get an 8-10 seed. Think Northern Iowa and Saint Mary's of '09-10.
I'll set aside a pair of usual suspects, Butler and Gonzaga, as well as BYU, which has an All-America-caliber guard in Jimmer Fredette. (Jimmer is a verb, you know.) That leaves two prime candidates. The first is San Diego State, which is my pick to win the Mountain West over the BYU Jimmers. The Aztecs came within a bucket of knocking off Tennessee in the first round last season (which would have made anyone who picked that upset during the CBS Selection Show look like a genius), and their five returning starters includes a guy you have to check out: 6-7 sophomore forward Kawhi Leonard.
My other mid-major gem is Wichita State. You may recall that in his previous gig, Shockers coach Gregg Marshall made Winthrop a perennial mid-major darling, taking the Eagles to seven NCAA tournaments in nine years. Now in his fourth year at Wichita State, Marshall is poised to do the same for the Shockers, who return four starters from the team that was the runner-up to Northern Iowa in the Missouri Valley last season.
The ramifications of this answer will extend well beyond the prodigious confines of the Big Blue Nation. Yes, the 6-9 Turkish native would be the best center in college basketball if he suits up, but if the NCAA deems him ineligible on the basis of the money received from his professional club in Turkey, it could discourage coaches from trying to recruit elite foreign players in the future.
This is ironic, since Kanter was supposed to be the first high-caliber player who was going to be liberated by the NCAA's recently-implemented rule easing the way for overseas players to play American college basketball. In the past, the main problem with players making the jump is the lack of a high school system in Europe similar to what we have here in the States. That means that if the top European prospects want to learn how to play, they have to join professional clubs, which deemed them a pro in the eyes of the NCAA. The rule put in place last spring allows youngsters to play with pros as long as they don't get compensated above "actual and necessary expenses."
Kanter's status is on hold while the NCAA and Kentucky try to figure out whether his compensation went above this threshold. Clearly, the man who runs his club back home is doing all he can to thwart Kanter's efforts, and he may have the goods to do just that. At the end of the day, I'm hoping Kanter will wear a Kentucky jersey this season, because if he doesn't, other coaches might decide it's not worth the hassle to try recruit foreign players. That would be a shame, because the game really benefits from the international flavor.
The short answer is, not really. It will probably seem like the conference has improved because unlike last season, when the Pac-10 spent most of the year without having a single team in the top 25, it will have a marquee team in Washington. In addition, the Pac-10's marquee program, UCLA, should be much better. That will add to the perception that the conference is improved over last season.
Beyond that, things will be pretty ugly -- again. Cal lost the core of last year's regular-season champs; Arizona, Arizona State and Washington State are just OK; Oregon State and Stanford are causing ripples in recruiting but are still at least a year away from seeing the benefits on the court; USC is still reeling from sanctions levied in the O.J. Mayo mess; and the bottom has completely fallen out at Oregon under first-year coach Dana Altman. Conferences are ultimately judged on how many teams they send to the NCAA tournament. Last year the Pac-10 sent just two. It might get three this season, but I'd be surprised if it went beyond that.
The first answer will be revealed in about five months, but I can tell you the second -- very loudly. One of the arguments in favor of expanding the NCAA tournament was the notion that there were sooooo many teams worthy of inclusion that it was a travesty to leave them out. This belied the basic truth that no matter how many teams are allowed in, some teams are going to be left out. And they will understandably want to make their case that they got the shaft.
There was so much attention given to the desire to save coaches' jobs by expanding the tournament that few considered the probability that expansion will make life even harder for those coaches whose teams were left out. They expanded the field and he still couldn't get there??!! Fire the bum! This is why I'm thankful the NCAA didn't expand the field to 96 teams and left the field at 68. It should be hard to get into the tournament. That's what makes it so much fun.